Discourse / Editorials / March 4, 2009

Sensationally trashy

Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen; A Pirate of her Own; Briefly Yours: An Erotic Romance Novel; Three Nights of Sin; Between the Sheets; Razor Burn: A Romentics Novel (yes roMENtics novel).

Every last one of these novels really sounds like its full of deep, penetrating character development, right? I’m sure that there are lots of thought-provoking moments in which a reader is forced to consider his; or, more likely, her world in Razor Burn.

Literature is a form of art. At its best it can be a scathing critique of society or a warning about the path that we are currently following and where that might lead. Literature is a way for an author to give a voice to social ills in a way that catches people’s attention and makes them question the world they live in. George Eliot makes us consider the role of women in literature, Charles Dickens shows us a bleak portrait of life in urban England and Mary Shelley makes us question the godlike qualities that we can associate with science. And these are only singular examples of the many things that their texts are able to convey or make the reader consider. Social Movements have been sparked through written work. Just think about Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the power that those works had in mobilizing a population.

Now consider Between the Sheets. It seems almost ludicrous that The Wasteland can share space on a bookshelf with Briefly Yours, almost as nonsensical as the plot of these romance novels. If you consider literature to be a form of art, then Eliot could be Picasso while the romance novelists could probably be equated to someone making kitschy ear-rings out of beads in their basement.

As much as I love cheesy, beaded jewelry, and honestly am mildly addicted to the teenage version of the trashy romance novel, I still keep going back to be dazzled by the latest piece at the Art Institute and still think that Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite novels. I’m not knocking cheesy or tacky; I’m merely questioning why it seems to be favored over art. When I searched for romance novels and some of the classics on Amazon, the ratings for the trashy titles I listed earlier were on par or, in some cases, higher than the more intellectually stimulating alternatives.

I can easily understand why someone would buy a poster or a tacky gift store ceramic piece instead of buying a painting or a sculpture; artwork is significantly more expensive. What I don’t understand is why people would populate their bookshelves with the bad books, beginning with Bad Attitude, rather than books like King Lear, The Old Man and the Sea, Kim or A Passage to India. Books are after all pretty much the same price, whether you are getting the latest Gossip Girls book or an Oxford Classic, so it is not the drastic price change that influences art versus gift shop replicas or tacky pieces.

Why are we so drawn to these cheap replicas of literary art? According to Patrick Brantlinger in his article “What’s so Sensational about the Sensation Novel?” Sensation novels “live on in several forms of popular culture.” He makes references to the connection between sensation novels and the best sellers of today. These novels created secrets and exciting storylines for people to follow. These novels might have offered an exciting alternative to daily life.

The same is potentially true of today’s romance novels. In her article “Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy Tales,” Linda Lee points out that “Popular romance novels are often interpreted as providing insight into the way that women negotiate fantasy lives within patriarchal culture.” The article also talks about how it allows women to live out fantasies from the safety of their own homes without the consequences. Perhaps this also means that those novels provide an escape from reality.

It could be that the literature that is largely considered to be art, or more legitimately is meant to show us the world as it is and give us a window into uncomfortable truths in a way that is more accessible, while the trashy best seller counterparts offer an escape from the uncomfortable truths of life. One uses fiction to present truth and the other offers realism to create fantasy.

Regardless of whether you think that romance novels are trashy or not, their hold on America’s imagination is undeniable. Lee points out that “According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction had $1.37 billion in sales in 2006 and held a 26.4 percent share of the consumer book market. More than 64 million Americans read at least one romance novel in 2004, and 42 percent of these readers hold at least a bachelors’ degree (Romance Writers of America).” Along with the popularity of these novels, they have even gained legitimacy through criticism. Lee wrote, “Since the 1980s there has been a growing body of scholarship on popular romance genres, such as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance, Janice Radway’s highly influential Reading the Romance, and Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution.”

Romance novels may have titles like Between the Sheets but do they potentially have something to offer to people?

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